After everything that unfolded at Texas last weekend, this coming Sunday's race at Phoenix has taken on a very different tone.
Many thought that Jimmie Johnson would possibly wrap up the championship a week early. But on lap three at Ft. Worth, that changed entirely. What was a 184-point deficit has now become 73, and the teams chasing the No. 48 are now within striking distance.
How appropriate that the series' next-to-last stop is out west in the desert. It will certainly be a fight among the cactus and sand. But this race could have championship implications heading into Homestead.
It will be interesting what happens once the green flag flies. So, I'm "Dustin' off" the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.
Let's look at who will be the favorites and who will be the dark horses for 500 miles.
You have to figure the odds-on favorite has to be the winner of the spring race at this track.
Mark Martin gained a lot of ground at Texas and admitted his team has a good car setup for Phoenix.
It was in this race that Martin got his first win for Hendrick Motorsports. That set off an unbelievable season for the No. 5 team. Five wins, 13 Top Five finishes, and 20 Top Ten finishes later, Martin is right in the thick of the championship hunt.
I believe that this race is more important than Homestead because a good run here will give Martin a lot of confidence going into the finale.
The No. 5 team is my pick on Sunday, and with the determination Martin has shown all year, he will be hard to beat.
It's odd to put Harvick in this category, but the more I looked at it, he is a strong favorite in this race.
It wasn't long ago that Harvick swept both races at Phoenix, and he always runs strong at this track. In fact, he and teammate Jeff Burton have both won at Phoenix and will be big contenders.
But I think Harvick is the one with the best opportunity to win, and it would be very odd if he wasn't up front at some point in the race.
Keep your eyes on the No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet.
Oh yes, Johnson will be a contender. He has won this race in each of the last two seasons, when it essentially decided the championship.
For me, Johnson must win the title this weekend by running well at Phoenix. In 2007, he won this race, his fourth in a row, then went out and finished seventh at Homestead to get his second title.
Last year, Johnson won this race and had a comfortable lead. He then just cruised to a 15th-place finish at Homestead. Despite a win by his closest challenge, Carl Edwards, it was not enough.
This race will decide the the championship again this year, so Johnson must have his game face on.
This is not one of Gordon's better tracks, but he does run better here than he does at Texas, which he admits.
But with only one win, it is tough to put him as a favorite. However, I still believe Gordon will be running well. He is also closely behind Johnson and could possibly make a move to cut into his points lead.
With only one win this season, at Texas no less, Gordon is hungry and wants to put the DuPont Chevrolet in victory lane one more time. He could surprise everyone and win this race.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
If it seems as if I'm favoring Hendrick Motorsports, you are right. But Junior has not gotten a win for Hendrick at Phoenix. His two wins at this track came in 2003 and 2004, racing for his dad's company.
The last two weeks have been up and down for this team. At Talladega, obviously, he ran up front all afternoon. However, because of him running out of fuel, he was at the back of the pack late and finished 11th.
Last week, he ran in the top five all day long, but on his last pit stop just for fuel, he stalled the car, leaving his pit box. It took nearly two laps for him to get his car fired, and he wound up 25th.
If it could happen to this team, it has. There are just two races left, and he will be trying hard to get that long awaited win. Phoenix is his best chance, and he will go all out for the win.
This weekend is the pivotal race and could possibly decide a champion. Coverage on ABC begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday with NASCAR Countdown.
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